Media and Mental Illness in a Post-Truth Era

It has been argued convincingly that the public’s primary source of information about mental illness is the media: news, entertainment, and the echo chamber of social media. These depictions cue, frame, and otherwise guide our interpretive frameworks in both obvious and subtle ways. Visual media may be especially compelling and impactful in guiding social awareness, implicit beliefs, and change.

If only by their relative ubiquity in the media, mental health and illness seem fascinating, confusing, and beguiling to the masses. These concepts are complicated (the latest iteration of our psychiatric nosology, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, runs over 900 pages) and complex because they are sensitive to and dependent on myriad individual and social conditions. It is no surprise that mental health concerns should have these qualities, given that the beliefs and values that emerge from the contested boundaries of what is deemed normal versus pathological are a defining feature of who we are. It is concerning, then, that media representations of mental illness consistently skew negative, overemphasizing unpredictability, violence (to self and others), and criminality.

The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law